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Speakers Discuss Freedom of Expression in Guatemala

The Guatemalan government denies Indigenous communities the fundamental right to freedom of expression when they face legal barriers to accessing radio frequencies, according to San Miguel Chicaj radio station operator Noé Ismalej.

“[The state is] seeing us as people that shouldn’t or don’t deserve to have rights,” Ismalej said. “Freedom of expression shouldn’t be a product that should be sold. It should be free.”

Ismalej was one of three speakers at a Boston College Center for Human Rights and International Justice–sponsored event on Thursday titled Community Radio Stations, Indigenous Freedom of Expression and Cultural Rights.

According to Ismalej, Indigenous communities in Guatemala have not been able to operate community radio stations for several decades due to a law that requires groups to bid for radio frequencies.

The group that submits the highest bid—normally a monopoly media company or large corporation—typically wins, said Suffolk University professor Nicole Friederichs.  

“Indigenous communities who want to operate community radio stations [have] a very specific use of the radio frequency spectrum,” Friederichs said. “It’s nonprofit. It’s for community issues. So for a community wanting to access or gain a license under this framework, it’s impossible.”

Friederichs said Maya Kaqchikel of Sumpango, an Indigenous Maya group, therefore brought a case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, arguing the Guatemalan state breached their rights. 

“It’s that law … that we challenged in the Inter-American system as being a violation of Indigenous peoples’ right to freedom of expression, right to culture, right to equal protection of the law, as well as a right to media,” Friederichs said. “We argued that this framework is essentially de facto discrimination against Indigenous communities.”

Cesar Gomez, a community media program coordinator at Cultural Survival, emphasized how before the radio frequencies law passed in 1996, Indigenous Maya communities could freely spread their voice and culture.

“When radio was the most economical way to access the media, the communities started promoting their own mother tongue, their traditional music, their conditions,” Gomez said. “[After] their own ways of organizing … were in danger of disappearing.”

In December 2021, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of Indigenous communities, concluding that Guatemala violated their rights to freedom of expression, culture, and equality before the law as well as their right to media.

“They’re telling Guatemala that when they’re making these reforms to make sure that they’re working towards this whole of a more diverse and plural voice in media and especially in radio,” Friederichs said. “They called on Guatemala … to make it very easy for Indigenous communities to be able to access a license with no bidding process.”

The Guatemalan government, however, has not taken any steps to change its laws regarding radio frequencies, which has caused more frustration for the Indigenous communities, Friederichs said. 

“They’re not upholding this vote,” Ismalej said. “We have requested meetings … to know the progress of the implementation but have negative responses. They say they are not viable to comply with the sentence because there are ‘no frequencies available.’”

Ismalej concluded that Indigenous communities in Guatemala are still hopeful about gaining increased radio access. 

With more community radio stations, Indigenous communities will be able to exercise their rights freely and establish a global presence, the panelists said.

“We’re not foreigners in this state. We’re part of this state, and the rights belong to everyone,” Ismalej said. “The media has strengthened the sovereignty process and also has allowed us to create relationships with other people in different countries, Indigenous or non-Indigenous … [the government] should allow us to organize ourselves in being who we are.”

November 6, 2022